Stonewall Jackson’s Deadly Calm

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“THERE WAS A WITHCERY IN his name,” a Mississippian wrote, “which carried confidence to friend and terror to foe,” Northerners victimized by Stonewall Jackson’s daring thrusts were hardly less laudatory. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, on the verge of becoming a Federal hero at Gettysburg, wrote on hearing of Jackson’s death that he rejoiced for the Union cause, “and yet in my soldier’s heart I cannot but see him the best soldier of all this war, and grieve at his untimely end.” A New York newspaper praised Jackson as a “military genius” and declared, “Nowhere else will the name of Jackson be more honored.”

Americans North and South marveled—and still do—at Jackson’s exploits and at the rigid, pious, eminently determined person who produced them. He was in some ways so unlike his fellows but in many others so ordinary.

A confederate attending an 1897 reunion in Los Angeles read a short poem to his assembled comrades. Its reminiscent look at the mythic images of Jackson and Robert E. Lee closes with a couplet that deftly evokes the two: “…now and then/Through dimming mist we see/The deadly calm of Stonewall’s face/The lion-front of Lee.” That deadly calm continues to bemuse observers. It prompted a modern popular film producer in a fit of silliness to call Jackson a blue-eyed assassin. Serious students of the war respond to the imagery in ways that often reveal more about themselves than about the militant Presbyterian deacon who came, with Lee, to symbolize the Confederacy.

Thomas Jonathan Jackson (1824–63) reached the eve of the great American war without revealing any hint that he had the makings of a legend. For a land enamored of rags-to-riches tales, he personified the noble concept of rising from humble origins. Orphaned at an early age, sheltered in the homes of a series of relatives, ill educated, Tom Jackson reached his late teens without any real prospects for modest success, to say nothing of greatness. A chance to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point opened new vistas. It also threw in young Jackson’s path the intimidating prospect of competing in a rigorous academic environment with boys vastly better prepared for the challenge.

 

Nothing soluble by sheer hard work ever daunted Jackson. The youngster from western Virginia stayed in the West Point Hotel’s attic on June 19, 1842, and the next day began the academy’s entrance examinations. When the testing ended, his name appeared dead last on the list approved for admission. He applied himself to West Point’s curriculum with the same implacable determination that later made him a terror to his foes. A classmate recalled that his “efforts at the blackboard were sometimes painful to witness.” Whatever the problem at hand, Jackson “would hang to it like a bull-dog, and in his mental efforts…great drops of perspiration would roll from his face, even in the coldest weather.” Cadets joked that “he was certain to flood the section room.”

ONE OF HIS PEERS at West Point noticed how a petty misdeed by another cadet seemed to Jackson “to show a moral depravity disgracing to humanity.”

The sweat—and long nights of cramming by candlelight—paid off. Jackson managed to finish fifty-first out of eighty-three class members at the end of his first year. He improved steadily to stand thirtieth and twentieth in succeeding classes, then graduated seventeenth in 1846. His grades the last year received a boost from the class on ethics (or logic), in which he ranked near the top. A contemporary at the academy suggested that had the curriculum run a year or two longer, Jackson would have reached the head of his class. At the end of his third year at West Point, the rigidly disciplined young man stood first in conduct among all 204 cadets.

Once he had become world-famous, his West Point contemporaries tried to recollect anecdotes about him. One of them admitted that Jackson had been “so modest and retiring…as to be but little known.” Unfortunately Cadet Jackson’s roommate George Stoneman, who would command the Unionist cavalry opposing Lieutenant General Jackson at Chancellorsville, left no testimony about their days at West Point.

THE YEAR JACKSON graduated, his country went to war with Mexico. His experiences as an artillery subaltern in that conflict marked the young lieutenant as an officer of skill and promise, and promotions for bravery won during the bitter fighting in front of Mexico City earned him the title of major. He wore that designation with pride for fifteen years until in 1861 he became Stonewall, perhaps the most famous nom de guerre in American history.

Jackson’s Mexican interlude also prompted the dawning of a religious awareness that would blossom into one of his defining characteristics. During his youth Jackson’s irregular upbringing had included more horse racing than piety. A story about his siring an illegitimate child is unsubstantiatable and probably inaccurate, but its acceptance by some of Jackson’s Confederate staff suggests their awareness of a past completely alien to the rigidly decorous adult. In 1847 the Catholic culture of occupied Mexico stimulated Major Jackson to examine the Roman Church’s tenets and practices with real interest. A few years later his religious nature settled on Calvinism, and he embraced Presbyterianism with all the zeal of a spectacularly ardent soul, becoming what his pastor called “the best deacon I ever had.”